On August 24, The New York Times ran an opinion piece by Antony Lerman, a former director of the Institute for Jewish Policy Research, with the provocative title, “The End of Liberal Zionism,” which raised the question of whether “liberal Zionism” – broadly speaking, the ideology that has animated such “pro-Israel, pro-peace” groups as J Street and Americans for Peace Now – went from moribund to clinically dead during the recent (ongoing) Israeli assault on Gaza.
It’s an important, well-meaning, thoughtful piece that Americans who care about these issues should read. But in suggesting that we should abandon pursuit of the “two-state solution” to the conflict in favor of a “one-state solution” that ensures equal rights for Israeli Jews and Palestinian Arabs in a single state between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea, the article fell into a common fallacy of left discussions about this issue.
The fallacy goes like this: There are two possible solutions to the Israel-Palestine conflict that would meet minimal standards of justice for the Palestinians. The two-state solution based on the 1967 borders, or a single, binational state with equal rights for all. The main argument, from the point of view of justice for the Palestinians, for preferring the two-state solution over the equal-rights, one-state solution has been that the two-state solution appeared to be much more politically realistic: It was plausible that the Israeli government would agree under international pressure to implement the two-state solution. The two-state solution has clearly failed, the argument goes. Therefore, the only remaining option is the equal-rights, one-state solution.
This argument is like saying: I have two choices for a career. I could be a lawyer or I could be an astronaut. I thought that being a lawyer was more realistic, so I went for that. But I failed the bar exam repeatedly because I didn’t study hard enough. Since the strategy of becoming a lawyer failed, I should now try to be an astronaut instead, since that is the only other choice.
The problem with this argument is that becoming an astronaut is much harder than becoming a lawyer. If you don’t have the discipline to become a lawyer, you probably don’t have the discipline to become an astronaut.
The problem that this argument never seriously engages is: What is the process that will compel the Israeli government, which is already enjoying a “one-state solution” in which it does not have to grant equal rights to Palestinians, to accept a one-state solution in which it does have to grant equal rights to Palestinians?
The answer given to this question, to the extent that any answer is given, is that “boycott, divestment, and sanctions” on the Israeli government will eventually bring about sufficient pressure on the Israeli government to compel the Israeli government to accept an equal-rights, one-state solution, “just like it did to apartheid South Africa.” Some people seem to think that is sufficient argument that the equal-rights, one-state advocates have a plausible political strategy to reach their goal.
But even if you and I and everyone we know could agree to the proposition that the experience of Palestinians under Israeli rule is very similar to the experience of black South Africans under apartheid, that would only matter to the degree that the world would agree that faced with the same situation from the point of view of the victims, they should advocate for the same political solution, and, crucially, apply a similar amount of pressure to achieve the same political solution.
In other words: In order for the BDS-South Africa equal-rights, one-state story to work, the same actors – the same governments and political groups – who have failed to compel the Israeli government to accept the two-state solution would have to use the same tools of pressure on the Israeli government that they have so far refused to use to bring about the two-state solution – a solution that they officially endorse – in order to bring about the equal-rights, one-state solution, a solution that they are very far away from officially endorsing.
In other words, the core problem is not one state or two states. The core problem is the failure to organize effective pressure on the Israeli government to force it to change its policies. Why would we think that “abandoning the two-state solution” is a solution to the problem of the failure to organize effective pressure on the Israeli government to force it to change its policies?
The most crucial failing of the liberal Zionists has not been that they have a morally contradictory ideology that cannot manage the tension between the liberal value of equality and the Zionist assumption of Jewish supremacy in Palestine. The most crucial failing of the liberal Zionists has been that they have been politically passive, unwilling to fight politically for their stated beliefs, and use the same nonviolent political pressure tactics that a labor union, an environmental group or a women’s group would use to force the changes in government policy that they want.
There is a boycott of SodaStream, an Israeli company that is based in an Israeli settlement in the West Bank. Liberal Zionists claim that they oppose Israeli settlements in the West Bank. Many liberal Zionists personally support the boycott of Israeli settlements in the West Bank. Why aren’t liberal Zionists leading the campaign in the United States to boycott SodaStream? Why are so many content with merely personally supporting a boycott, instead of engaging in organizing that would have much broader political impact?
There is a divestment campaign against Caterpillar, which supplies bulldozers to the Israeli military to destroy Palestinian homes in the West Bank. The Presbyterian Church supports this divestment campaign. Liberal Zionists claim that they oppose destroying Palestinian homes in the West Bank. Why aren’t liberal Zionists leading the campaign to divest from Caterpillar?
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas went to the United Nations seeking recognition for a Palestinian state on the 1967 borders, in a diplomatic bid to save the two-state solution. For this peaceful diplomatic move Abbas was viciously attacked by the Zionist right and the “one-state” left. Why didn’t liberal Zionists forcefully defend Abbas when he was taking heavy fire for peacefully advocating the position that they claim to support?
Liberal Zionists claim that they care about Congress. Why don’t liberal Zionist groups ever send their members an alert asking them to contact their representatives in Congress in support of any form of pressure whatsoever on the Israeli government to bring about the policies that the liberal Zionists claim to support?
The core problem with the liberal Zionists, the key reason that they are politically moribund, is not that they believe in Zionism, but that they do not believe in organizing effective pressure on the Israeli government to bring about the policies that the liberal Zionists claim to support. The problem is not that they support two states; the problem is that they are “two-state fakers,” people who claim to support the two-state solution but oppose the pressure on the Israeli government necessary to bring it about.
“Abandoning the two-state solution” doesn’t address this problem at all. And, until now, the “abandon the two-state solution” people have no realistic strategy at all for trying to engage and move the US government, or any other government. For people who care about changing government policies, the problem of the failure to organize effective pressure on the Israeli government to change its policies is what should dominate our attention, rather than academic and philosophical debates on ideology.